Of course, this list could be much longer. There are many other odd dishes out there but these are some of the more common ones. Every province has its own special dish that it is known for. Bursa has iskender, Çorum has leblebi, Konya has etli ekmek, and Gaziantep has claim on basically every other amazing dish. If you’re traveling to different provinces try to find out what the local dish is and give it a try. Let us know what you think, or let us know of any other things you’ve seen or tried that we should add to this list!
Ayran is a yogurt based drink popular not just in Turkey but in many of the surrounding countries. It’s served in two forms: açık ayran (open ayran) and kapalı (covered/closed) unless it’s homemade. While the name actually refers to how it’s packaged the taste is pretty different. Open ayran has a slightly sour taste to it and is usually served in a copper mug with a pile of froth on top. The ‘covered’ type is what you buy at a grocery store and is served at a lot of restaurants. The taste isn’t sour like the ‘open’ type, rather it’s a bit salty.
While there’s actually a few other types of ayran out there people here in Istanbul hadn’t ever heard of them and didn’t believe me that they existed so you’re probably not going to see them often. One of the weirdest was a homemade ayran mixed with lemon juice and mineral water. So just imagine salty, sour, fizzy, thick milk.
Speaking of salty and sour drinks… Şalgam is a fairly salty and sour drink made from turnips and drinking it is a sure way to impress locals. To get an idea of the flavor imagine salty, slightly spicy, pickle juice. That’s basically what it is. It’s a deep purple color and if you’re looking for something common locally but weird to Westerners this is a good one.
Boza is an ancient drink that has been made for many thousands of years by fermenting grains, usually millet, with sugar, water and a bit of old boza as a fermenting agent. The result is a mildly sweet, slimy, grainy drink that most foreigners are not fond of. I’ve only tried it once so far and in case my description didn’t make it clear I didn’t exactly enjoy it. I’d be open to try it again and see if different brands or versions taste better but boza isn’t something you see around too often except in large bottles and 1 litre seems like a big commitment. While this drink was once very popular across the country and previously the Ottoman Empire it’s far from a staple these days. If you want to try a weird piece of history give it a try! If you’re interested, the Taksim area of Istanbul is a good bet for finding nostalgic drinks like this.
Türk Kahvesi (Turkish Coffee)
Turkish coffee is one of Turkey’s most famous culinary exports (right behind Turkish delight I would guess) so may not be strange to many of you. While there are actually a good number of types of Turkish Coffee, nearly all are brewed in a small pot called a cezve and served in tiny mugs. Because there is no straining of the grinds the bottom of the mug will usually have a thick paste of grinds that you don’t drink. This is also where the cup of water becomes important as your teeth will probably appreciate a rinse. When ordering Turkish coffee you will need to decide how much sugar you want in it. Either plain (sade), medium (orta şekerli), or sweet (şekerli).
There are also different flavors of Turkish coffee, usually made with a syrup or extract but as there are MANY different types and they aren’t very common you’ll just have to experiment for yourselves!
Finally, there are some local drinks that are called a type of Turkish coffee even though there is no coffee in it (such as Menengiç) but these are fairly rare unless you happen to be in the region that these versions come from.
Elma Çayı (Apple Tea)
OK, so apple tea is not actually weird in and of itself. What is weird is that tourists seem to associate apple tea with Turkey. While tourists drink it all the time I have never seen a local drinking it. I asked some Turkish guys why tourists think apple tea is Turkish and they just thought foreigners really liked it. And so the mystery continues though it is my mission to break this myth once and for all. If you want a more authentic drink ask for normal tea or, for something a bit different but still quite local, there’s ıhlamur or kuşburnu (linden or rosehip tea).
Cow stomach soup. That says most of what you need to know. I went out with Sean one time and while I got rice he decided to go cheap and get soup. The guy in the little shop said they only had işkembe and, to my surprise, Sean said sure. It was terrible. I didn’t try it but the smell of it wafting across the table to me ruined my food. After managing to get the whole bowl of soup down with liberal amounts of bread and resolve we realized that it was also the most expensive thing on the menu! İşkembe also sounds like İşkence, which is the word for torture. There’s definitely a connection.
As mentioned above the main ingredient is cow stomach which is simmered in soup stock, lots of butter and vinegar then flavored with loads of garlic. The result is something that reminded Sean of boiling a deer’s head for hours. So if that sounds like your thing enjoy!
This is one of the few things on this list that I eat regularly. Çiğ Köfte literally means ‘raw meatball/patty’ and the story behind its inception is both interesting and shows how this food is tied to the land and its deep history.
In the heart of Şanlıurfa in Turkey’s southeast, there is a hilltop castle. According to local belief while Abraham (a central figure in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths) was living there he came into conflict with King Nimrod (Nemrut in Turkish), also a figure in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic history. Nimrod has left his name on a number of places including Mount Nimrod (Nemrut Dağı) and Nimrod’s Throne (Nemrut Tahtası). The conflict leads to Nimrod taking all the wood in the region to build a huge fire which he then casts Abraham into. However, instead of being consumed by the flames God intervenes, turns the fire into a lake and Abraham into a fish. The lake is at the foot of the castle and today there are many well-treated fish in it.
Now back to the food. Because Nimrod took all the wood in the region there was no firewood left for cooking and so people were forced to eat the ground meat raw. The meat is kneaded like a dough which mixes in the spices and apparently cooks the meat. The person who told me that the squeezing cooks the meat told me this with a straight face, so I’m pretty sure he was serious. The meat is then squeezed into little handfuls that are eaten with flatbread or lettuce leaves drizzled with lemon juice.
While Çiğ Köfte may mean ‘raw meatball’ today, its actually a vegetarian dish with ground beef being replaced by various nuts and grains. In fact, selling Çiğ Köfte with real meat has apparently been outlawed due to health concerns (so the government doesn’t seem to buy the whole ‘cook by squeezing’ thing either) though I hear it’s actually really good.
Koç Yumurtası is Turkish for ram’s egg. But you and I both know rams don’t lay eggs. This is a dish of ram testicles. I haven’t actually seen it on a menu yet and I haven’t tried it so I can’t speak to what it’s actually like other than asking other people. There’s a variety of ways in which it can be cooked and apparently the meat is quite tender and very lean.
Unlike the above ram testicles (sunny side up or easy over?) this is a dish that is very common and the majority of people seem to enjoy. Kokoreç is lamb intestines wrapped on a skewer and roasted horizontally over charcoal. The good places will use lamb intestines though some cheaper and lower quality places will use mutton intestines. The good places will also use well cleaned intestines. At a bad place there is less guarantee of that. Once roasted the meat is chopped up with a heavy dose of spice and served on a small loaf of bread with tomatoes, parsley, and sometimes onion. While the texture is a bit rubbery the spices work to make sure the flavor isn’t too strange.
Tavuk Göğüsü Tatlısı
There are many strange desserts in Turkey, many of which originated during the late Ottoman period where cooks sought to impress Sultans and nobles with new creations. This particular dessert is made with chicken breast. While the flavor is a fairly typical milk pudding with a dusting of cinnamon, the texture is pretty odd as the shredded chicken is somewhat stringy.
Leblebi is the perfect food for when you are feeling too hydrated. These roasted chick-peas are eaten as a cheap street snack and served without any spice or salt and so are basically flavorless. I’m not a fan just in case you were wondering. When I heard that the city of Çorum in central Turkey was famous for its leblebi I was a little shocked that leblebi was considered a thing worth being famous for. However, the leblebi in Çorum was something different altogether. While normal leblebi is generally dry and flavorless, leblebi in Çorum comes coated in chocolate, Turkish coffee, fruit flavored candy, plain sugar, and, my personal favorite, kaymak (sweet cream).
Kelle Paça Çorbası
Like the above mentioned İşkembe soup Kelle Paça Soup is another oily, vinegary, garlicky soup made out of bits we don’t often eat in the West. Kelle Paça literally means head foot soup and that’s exactly what it is. Soup made from sheep or goat heads and feet.